Our friend of the month is Maureen Kinyanjui from Kenya, who works with our partner organisation, Save The Elephants, on the front line of human elephant conflict around Tsavo National Park. Maureen – who is studying for a PHD at Edinburgh University- works to reduce conflict by promoting welfare projects and bee farming.
Did you grow up next to Tsavo and its elephants, or did you come there from a different part of Kenya?
I grew up in Nakuru. In school holidays my family would spend time with my father in Isiolo, northern Kenya, where his army barracks was on an elephant corridor. During the dry season we'd have elephants outside our house drinking water from the laundry area. My sister and I watched them from our bedroom window.
Do you feel you’re winning the battles for hearts and minds of communities who live around Tsavo?
Yes, I feel we are. We realised early on that it is not possible to talk to communities about conservation when their minds are full of worries about where their next meal is coming from. We started projects aimed at improving their livelihoods, such as organic cultivation of cash crops like sunflower, that have a high market demand but are not popular with elephants. We also promote women eco-enterprises such as sisal basket weaving and the making of organic soap.
Why are women the key to success in your work?
Women are the heart of the community and are involved in everything; caring for families, food provision, education, religion and even natural resource management. They want to take part in any activity that will improve their wellbeing and their environment, because they know that after droughts, floods or elephant crop raids, they will be responsible for ensuring their families have enough food.
Can you give us a sense of the scale of human-elephant conflict in the communities you work with? For example, how does it compare to 10 years ago?
Human-elephant conflict in Sagalla community is on the increase compared to 10 years ago. There are more elephants, thanks to effective conservation, but the new Mombasa railway and illegal cattle grazing in the parks are forcing those elephants into community areas. They eat and damage crops, and so we have more conflict.
What about bees…do they really keep elephants away?
Yes, bees are the natural enemies of elephants and are very effective in chasing elephants away from farms. It is interesting to see how an elephant, such a large and impressive animal, reacts to bees. They shake their heads, flap their ears and eventually run away from just the sound of buzzing bees. 80% of the time, they avoid farms that have beehive fences.
To what extent has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your work during the past 8 months?
The pandemic stalled most of our projects. It was frustrating not to do more for our community when they were at their most vulnerable, health-wise and economically. We worked remotely to ensure the community was equipped with handwashing stations and affordable masks. My colleagues are now back in the field, trying to catch up with all the activities that were scheduled to take place at the beginning of the year. But we’re still not at full capacity because we have to follow COVID restrictions on movements and gatherings in the villages.
Tsavo is one of the African elephant’s historic strongholds. Are you optimistic about its future?
I am optimistic. A lot of conservation work has been done to ensure the survival of the great elephants of Tsavo. We are working with communities to help them understand and appreciate their natural heritage while trying to resolve the challenges they experience, like food insecurity. When community and researchers are all working together to protect the elephants, I believe the future is very bright.